Lacrosse fans in Edmonton have been waiting to get behind a winner for most of their seven seasons. Coach and General Manager Derek Keenan has finally brought stability to the lacrosse operations side of the franchise and the crazy Brodie Merrill/Paul Rabil/Athan Iannucci nightmare that looked like it totally unravelled on him, ended up landing Edmonton lacrosse fans Mark Matthews, their version of the Big White Hope.
The challenge for 2014 will be consistency so that the Rush can land that home playoff game the franchise needs. Hosting a post season game and all the buzz created by an Edmonton sports team in the playoffs will give fringe lacrosse fans and all the playoff starved NHL fans a reason to come and watch the best indoor lacrosse in the world.
A year after adding Mark Matthews, Curtis Knight, Michael Burke, Mitch Banister and Simon Giourmetakis to their system by way of the Entry Draft, the Rush built through draft again. Their first three picks, Robert Church, Riley Loewen and Adrian Sorichetti, all made it on to the 20 man active roster that was announced Monday. Nik Bilic was also added on draft day when the Rush sent their first round pick, fourth overall to Minnesota for Bilic and the fifth overall pick.
Another one of the team’s new additions, Defensive Coach Jimmy Quinlan, summed up Bilic like this, “He’s been in the league a little bit, he’s impressed me. He’s a very aggressive, in your face type of guy.”
Quinlan is joined by new Offensive Coach Jeff McComb. McComb and Derek Keenan have coached together in the National Lacrosse League and are just coming off the leading the Whitby Warriors to a Minto Cup Championship this summer.
The player who might be the sleeper addition to the Rush is left handed forward Dane Stevens. Keenan seemed very happy to have him back on the roster after Stevens lead the Burnaby Lakers of the Western Lacrosse Association in regular season scoring with 81 points in 18 games.
The offence took a huge hit in the off season, losing two of its top three leading scorers from 2013. Corey Small suffered a major knee injury in the first game of the WLA Finals and just recently had successful surgery that could keep him out for the whole season. Ryan Ward was lost in free agency, signing with the Philadelphia Wings. His 54 assists and 74 points led the team and he also served as an assistant captain, bringing an important veteran presence to the offensive mix.
Mark Matthews dedicated himself to becoming more athletic this summer and has shed what looks to be around thirty pounds. His impressive rookie season was equal to some of the best the NLL has seen so expectations are that he will take another step towards being a dominant offensive force in 2014. Rookie Robert Church will be a benefactor of the loss of Ryan Ward. Church looked very good in the first weekend of camp that was held in Edmonton and both Derek Keenan and Jeff McComb anticipate that the Drexel University grad will step in an contribute right away. The addition of Dane Stevens and selection of Riley Loewen will help fill the vacancy left by Corey Small’s injury and Zack Greer is poised to be a leader on an off the floor after a solid season last year and being named an assistant captain in training camp.
How do you improve on allowing the second fewest goals in the league last year? By being first overall in that category this year. The Rush have the personnel to do it. Kyle Rubisch has been named the Defensive Player of the Year two years running for a reason.
As Jimmy Quinlan put it, “If you really want to find a guy to watch and get motivated by, you watch Kyle Rubisch because he’s an absolute beast.”
After Rubisch, more of the league’s top defenders come at you. Brett Mydske, newly named captain Chris Corbeil and face off specialist Jeremy Thompson just to name three. The strength of the defence is best illustrated by who didn’t make the active roster. After playing in every Rush regular season and playoff game over the last two seasons, Jarrett Toll starts the year on the practice roster. Not only that, but he had the second highest point total out of the back gate in 2012 and was fourth in the same category in 2013. So yes, this group of defenders is deep.
Up until the last two seasons, goal tending was a position that let the Rush down on occasion. Go back and watch the fourth quarter and overtime of game 16 last year against the Roughnecks and you will see that Aaron Bold was the reason that the game got to overtime in the first place. Even though Calgary tied it up with 13.2 seconds left, Bold made several key saves in the last eight minutes of the game to keep his team ahead. Then in overtime he was at his acrobatic best and was the only reason the extra session lasted as long as it did. When Brodie MacDonald was called into action last year, he showed that he is also a starter in the NLL, so the best thing that the Rush have going for them between the pipes is the internal competition between #77 and #50 as they push one another to see who will be the one to get the start from week to week.
The main focus coming out of camp is on having a strong start to the season. Starting 1-5 last year forced the team to put together a lights out run on the road as they won five games in row between February 24th and March 24th. This season, the schedule maker has been much easier on them because instead of starting with Toronto, Washington, Washington, Calgary, Calgary, their first five games include Colorado in the first two weeks, who are now without Casey Powell, who averaged over five points a game with the Mammoth after coming over from Rochester mid-season.
The team has all sorts of confidence on the road, coming off a 7-1 record away from Rexall Place so their regular season success will depend on whether or not they can get rid of the Kryptonite that seems to be hidden somewhere in the bowels of the 40 year old rink that was first know as Northlands Coliseum.
If you want a prediction from me, you will have to wait until next week. Until then, I would love to hear what you think Edmonton’s win/loss record for 2014 is going to be.
You can share your thoughts with me on Twitter @partytown25 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The best and worst might find there way into a column sometime.
Kris Partington fell in love with lacrosse the second he picked up a stick. Over the last 20 years he has played, coached and refereed in the Edmonton area and is always looking for a way to promote Canada’s Original National Sport. In 2013 he began promoting the Alberta Junior A Lacrosse League on Facebook and Twitter (@ABJrALax) and covered the Minto Cup at iconic Queen’s Park Arena in New Westminster. He continues to play year round, is a dedicated member of Relics Lacrosse and will always be a St. Albert Ram at heart.